Median Home Prices Up but Sales Dip Across Southland

Times Staff Writer

The median home price in Los Angeles County hit a record $284,000 in February, surging 19.8% from a year ago as low mortgage rates continued to keep buyers in the market, according to housing figures released Wednesday.

Sales slipped 4%, but they were exceptionally strong a year ago, when the number of homes sold was increasing 20% or more a month -- growth that could not be sustained over the long term. Most brokers said the market remained robust overall, with listings remaining at low levels and bidding battles breaking out over attractively priced homes.

"If you have a good house that is decently priced ... it gets multiple offers and is out the door," said Richard Mathies, executive vice president of Dilbeck Realtors, which sells homes in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.

Prices on a year-over-year basis moved up strongly across the entire six-county region. Orange County remained the region's highest-priced market overall, as the median jumped 21.1%, to $384,000, according to DataQuick Information Systems Inc., a real estate research firm. The gain was the largest since May 1989, when the median rose 22.8%.

In the Inland Empire, the median sales price rose 18% in Riverside County, to $236,000, and the San Bernardino County median increased 10.7%, to $176,000. The Ventura County median rose 14.9% to $348,000 and San Diego County posted the region's biggest increase: a 23.5% jump, to $357,000.

The median price, the point at which half of the homes and condos in a given market sell for more, and half for less, is considered more statistically accurate than the average price because it filters out the effect of homes sold at the extreme high and low ends of the market.

Although prices appreciated at record rates, the number of homes and condos sold remained relatively modest or declined on a year-over-year basis. Sales dropped 3.2% in Orange County, 1% in San Diego and 11.2% in Ventura. Only Riverside and San Bernardino counties showed increases, of 14.8% and 4.7% respectively.

Peter Hernandez, president of Coldwell Banker in Orange County, said his company's sales and prices are running ahead of projections. He noted that there were several properties priced in excess of $5 million that had received multiple offers in recent weeks.

"The foundation for real estate sales in Orange County has never been stronger," Hernandez said.

Although buyers have expressed concerns about war with Iraq and the state of the economy, the drop in mortgage rates to historic lows has helped offset those fears, say brokers. Last week, the 30-year mortgage rate fell to a new low, dropping to an average 5.61%, according to Freddie Mac.

"The public is not balking because the interest rates are the lowest they have been in four decades," said San Fernando Valley broker Tom Carnahan of Carnahan & Associates.

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